The Simple Question That Never Gets Asked

Yesterday, conservatives got all outraged because a microphone picked up a few journalists discussing with each other what questions they would ask Mitt Romney at what turned out to be his disastrous press conference on the events in Cairo and Benghazi. Aha! they shouted; Michelle Malkin told the Mensa convention that is "Fox & Friends" that "If it looks, sounds, talks like journo-tools for Obama, it is what it is." As Erik Wemple patiently and carefully explained, in contexts like press conferences—by both Democratic and Republican politicians!—reporters often plan out what questions they'll ask. And you know what? They ought to do it more often. Maybe they wouldn't ask so many dumb questions.

It's certainly a problem that politicians are so sneaky and evade the questions journalists do ask. And the reporters don't really have time to sit down and engage in a process of deliberation so they can use their collective knowledge and wisdom to arrive at the questions that will prove the most edifying for the public. (And I should say that the problem isn't exclusive to political reporters. If I hear one more sports reporter who can't think of anything more interesting to ask an athlete than "What does this victory mean to you?" I'm going to scream.) But more often than not, what sounds on the surface like a zinger of a question doesn't actually amount to much more than an invitation for the politician to repeat his talking points.

I've been on a long and lonely crusade to get reporters to ask politicians a simple follow-up whenever they're confronted with statements they know are misleading: "Could you tell us specifically what you're talking about?" It's not that hard a question to ask. Let's take a look at how it would have worked in this case. By the time Romney got to that press conference, he had issued a statement saying in part, "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Romney was referencing this statement put out by the embassy in Cairo, which we all now know was issued before any attacks:

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

It's only 99 words, and since the reporters knew that this statement and Romney's reaction to it were going to be discussed at the press conference, they should have brought a copy with them. That way they could ask a question like this: "Governor Romney, in your statement last night you described the statement issued by the embassy in Cairo as 'sympathizing with those who waged the attacks.' In your opening statement you just said 'I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt.' You also just said, in answer to the first question, that "It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.' Then in answer to another question you characterized this statement as saying 'there's something wrong with the right of free speech.' I have the statement the Cairo embassy made right here if you don't have a copy in front of you. Can you tell me specifically what in this statement constitutes 'sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy,' 'standing in apology for our values,' or saying 'there's something wrong with the right of free speech'?" Then you hand him the paper.

That would hold Romney accountable for his own words. The questions he actually got asked were the kind of idiotic questions political reporters so often pose—questions about the timing of his statement, do you regret issuing the statement you did, blah blah blah. None of them actually demanded of him what should be demanded of every candidate. It's true that he came out looking like a liar and a jerk, but he did that all by himself.

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